They Took a Swing Before Ali Did
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 14, 2009
Timing is everything.
It took "When We Were Kings," Leon Gast's riveting 1996 documentary about the Muhammad Ali-George Foreman "Rumble in the Jungle," more than 20 years to arrive in theaters. So it's altogether fitting that its unofficial sequel, "Soul Power," would take a decade or so. The new movie, about the legendary concert that preceded the 1974 boxing match in Kinshasa, Zaire, explodes in a burst of energy, musical chops and an eerie political prescience that makes it feel like something beamed from some past-is-future time warp.
Filmmaker Jeffrey Levy-Hinte gets "Soul Power" underway and chugging with swift economy, plunging the audience into the chaotic preparation for the three-day music festival, which like the fight itself was hanging by a slender financial thread (made even more tenuous by Zaire's corrupt President Mobutu Sese Seko). In scenes reminiscent of "Message to Love: The Isle of Wight Festival," another great music documentary about a legendary concert, "Soul Power" eavesdrops on a nervous financier's liaison as he checks in on the show's organizers, who at one point inform him that there's a "huge discrepancy in the day this festival starts."
Levy-Hinte juxtaposes these nerve-racking encounters with shots of ecstatic American musicians boarding a plane for Zaire, which more than one of them refers to as "going back home." The plane trip turns out to be one long jam session, with Celia Cruz keeping time with the Fania All-Stars by tapping her shoe on the plane's ceiling.
When the musicians finally take the stage for the show, in which the American acts alternated with such African musicians as Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba (whose husband Stokely Carmichael pops in for a quick cameo), Levy-Hinte wisely keeps focused on the music, capturing several high points: Bill Withers's mesmerizing performance of "Hope She'll Be Happier," B.B. King singing "The Thrill Is Gone," a double-time version of the Crusaders' "Put It Where You Want It" and James Brown's regal rendition of "Payback" and "Cold Sweat." ("Soul Power" also includes some off-the-cuff street performances, including a lyrical interlude in which Masekela acts as the Pied Piper of Kinshasa.)
Equally compelling are scenes featuring Ali, whose impromptu pronouncements often give voice to the rage and full-throated black nationalism that fueled the entire event. (Ali's characteristically eloquent disquisition on racial profiling, decades before that term would be coined, crackles with particular relevance.) While the feelings of longing, anger and pride are understandable, they're also made grimly ironic by the visage of Mobutu, the leopard-skin pillbox-hat wearing kleptocrat, looking on from posters while American artists claim Zaire as their symbolic home.
In inviting viewers to reflect on how the world has changed since 1974 -- and perhaps, more poignantly, how it hasn't -- "Soul Power" turns out to be an unusually resonant time capsule, one that weaves together theatrics, musicianship, cosmopolitanism and sharp political critique in a vibrant look-back that's at once celebratory and wistful.Soul Power (93 minutes, at Landmark's Bethesda Row) is rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and brief strong profanity.